Interview - 'I've got to know the kids through my wife'

11th September 2009 at 01:00
John Franklin, headteacher at Christ's Hospital boarding school in West Sussex, moved to England from Australia to work in the independent sector

Why did you decide to work in England?

My wife and I are Anglophiles and love the history and the tradition here, as well as the proximity to Europe. The good independent schools in Australia tend to be single-sex day schools in the city, but what my wife and I feel most comfortable with are co-ed boarding schools in the English countryside. When we were thinking about moving on from Ardingly, a co-ed boarding and day school, we deliberately chose to go to a full boarding school because we feel it's a much more focused, intense lifestyle. It's satisfying and rewarding - you do feel part of a vibrant, if slightly inward-looking, community.

Did you and your wife always want to teach at the same school?

Kim had all sorts of reservations about working with me at the same school, but I introduced the International Baccalaureate (IB) at Ardingly in 2000 and persuaded her to teach with me. She'd been head of English at Australia's top IB school and it seemed silly not to use her experience. They were desperate for an English teacher at Christ's Hospital as well, so she works with me here. It works out very well. She teaches a large set and gets to know a lot of the kids, and I get to know them easier through her.

What appeals to you about the independent sector?

I think it's the chance to really make a difference - you're not struggling with political and economic problems associated with maintained sectors in some parts of the world - and the fact that the expectations are much higher generally.

That's not to say that there aren't very bright, motivated kids in the state system, but I've been lucky in the schools that I've worked in, and most of the kids I teach are very motivated. The facilities are usually better, class sizes are smaller and you get the opportunity to work with children in a much wider range of activities: the sport, art, music and drama are a big part of what appeals to me about the independent sector.

Did you always have your sights on headship?

Not early on. For the first four years I wasn't sure that I wanted to stay in teaching, but once I went to Toowoomba Grammar, it felt like home, and I was keen to do as well as I could in the independent sector.

How does the role as head change at boarding school?

What I try to do is get around to talk to the staff and kids as much as possible: the sport, cadets, Duke of Edinburgh. I do a regular tour of the boarding houses in the evening, and spend an hour or two in each.

What makes a successful head?

A clear vision - knowing where your school should be going and having the ability and drive to make that happen. To do that, you've got to have a good team, and I'm extremely lucky here: we've got an extremely good senior management team and a good common room.

What's the biggest issue in education, and how would you tackle it?

In secondary education, the biggest issue is the quality of education and how it prepares pupils for tertiary education. I like teaching A-level, but I think it can be a bit narrow in some respects. The Australian, IB and Scottish systems all require pupils to retain a slightly broader collection of subjects, and I see real value in that. The IB provides a broader education and requires a greater range of skills. As well as six subjects, you have to do an extended essay and a creative, action and service component. It also has an inbuilt international element, so pupils are reminded that they aren't just sitting in a classroom in West Sussex: they are part of a broader global community.

What's your single biggest achievement?

Introducing the IB at Ardingly and bringing that to the point where it was successful and the right thing for the school. Being appointed to Christ's Hospital was a gratifying achievement for me. It is an extraordinary school and, like almost any independent school, you're constantly reminded that pupils there are from diverse backgrounds. They are there because they see it as their chance to make something of their lives.

If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?

Less rhetoric; more leadership; more focus; more money; and less politics. One of the problems is that while you have politics in education, the process is going to be fraught. You need a much clearer, single, controlling body looking after education in this country. It is a tragedy in many ways that there aren't more schools like Christ's Hospital and more really good state schools.

What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?

I've actually had "The dog ate my homework." That was a pupil at a country school in Australia many years ago, but the funny thing is, it was probably true.


2007-: Head, Christ's Hospital, West Sussex

1998-2007: Head, Ardingly College, West Sussex

1993-1998: Deputy head, St Peter's College, Adelaide

1989-1993: English teacher and housemaster, Marlborough College, Wiltshire

1989: English teacher, Sedbergh School, Cumbria

1980-1988: English teacher, Toowoomba Grammar, Queensland.

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